LOS ANGELES — It didn’t take long after Wednesday night’s Republican debate for Mitt Romney’s advisers to show they believed that Rick Perry had made a Texas-size blunder when he reasserted that Social Security has been a failure and a “monstrous lie” to future generations.
In the spin room at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, one after another Romney’s advisers hammered the Texas governor. As spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom put it, “I think it would be a disaster for the Republican Party to nominate Rick Perry.”
A few feet away, chief strategist Stuart Stevens made much the same argument. “I give him credit for standing by his position,” Stevens said. “It’s a bold position. It’s just a position that places him in a minority of a minority of a minority.”
Across the room, David Carney, Perry’s chief strategist, faced a blast of questions about what had just happened in the debate. Confronted by the charges from the Romney team that nominating Perry would be disastrous, Carney said defiantly, “We’ll see.” Asked about qualms among some Republicans about Perry’s potential viability in a general election against President Obama, he was equally succinct: “Stay tuned.”
There were many memorable moments in Wednesday’s debate, but none as potentially pivotal as the exchange between Perry and Romney over Social Security. If it wasn’t obvious before Wednesday, both sides now know it will be a clash point in every encounter going forward, just as the former Massachusetts governor’s health care plan and its individual mandate have been.
Perry will learn in time whether voters will reward or punish him for views that go further than any major presidential candidate has gone in striking at one of the most politically sacrosanct and sensitive federal programs ever created.
Perry’s attack on the very foundation of Social Security is clearly stated in his book, “Fed Up,” published late last year. Many politicians have argued that, because the baby boom generation will be retiring, leaving fewer workers to support them, Social Security must be reformed to remain financially solvent.
Perry believes that — and much more. To him, the entitlement program symbolizes a destructive turn toward massive growth in the federal government that began with President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. The New Deal and the Great Society, he believes, have damaged the country’s well-being and encroached on state prerogatives and individual freedoms.
In his book, Perry calls Social Security “a crumbling monument to the failure of the New Deal, in stark contrast to the mythical notion of salvation to which it has wrongly been attached for too long, all at the expense of respect for the Constitution and limited government.”
Those are obviously strong words and were written at a time when Perry’s intentions about running for president were quite different: He wasn’t going to do it. If he had no intention to become a candidate in 2012, he obviously saw an opportunity, as the country was turning against Obama’s policies, to become a leading voice for shrinking the power and reach of Washington.
His book was an all-out assault on most of the federal government’s roles in economic and domestic policy. Romney’s team believes Perry’s philosophy will become an anchor around the candidate’s shoulders as he tries to power forward toward the nomination. Perry believes just the opposite, that the Republican electorate is ready for his kind of conservatism.
The real test for Perry will come as he is forced to explain just how he would reform or replace Social Security if he were president. Six years ago, then-President George W. Bush sought to reform the program through partial privatization — allowing younger workers to divert a portion of their payroll taxes to personal accounts that they could manage.
Bush argued that those personal accounts would provide a greater rate of return on the investment than would Social Security. Senate Democrats stood firm in their opposition, dooming any chance that Bush could pass his proposal through the Congress. But not even Bush’s fellow Republicans warmed to the idea, particularly those in the House who could already see a wave building against them in the 2006 midterm elections.
What Perry envisions seems far more radical, although he has yet to spell out details. If Social Security is a failure, then a few changes in the program — such as a hike in the retirement age or a cap on income subject to the payroll tax — seem to fall far short of reforming a program that has played such a central role in enlarging Washington’s power.
If Perry wants to make government in Washington as inconsequential as possible in the lives of all Americans, and Social Security symbolizes all that was wrong with the New Deal, would tinkering not be seen as timidity?
Three days after he announced his candidacy, Perry spoke to a group of business leaders in Dubuque, Iowa. When he got a question about federal entitlement programs, he threw out some ideas.
“We need as a country to talk about what is the right age to start making that transition to a different program,” he said. “Are there ways that the states, for instance, could take over those programs and run them more efficiently than the federal government? I think all of that needs to be on the table and not be afraid to look for different alternatives.”
He said people might be able to come into “a different program” than Social Security. Although he went on to say he was not advocating any particular solution to the problem, he said the country should squarely face up to the fiscal problems of the entitlement programs. “We can’t be afraid to not [sic] talk about it because the opponents may try to scare people” who are now collecting or about to be collecting their Social Security checks, he said.
Carney said Wednesday night that even many Democrats believe that Social Security must be reformed and that to avoid the issue shows a failure of leadership. He said Perry would, at some point, outline in more detail what he thinks should be done with the program.
Carney also said that he did not believe Perry genuinely favored state-based programs to replace the federal retirement plan. “I don’t think that’s what he’s talking about,” he said. But he noted that state and local government employees might opt out. In his book, Perry points to several counties in Texas that did so years ago.
Long before he puts forward his own plan, Perry will be dealing with Romney’s assertion that his current views on Social Security would doom the Republicans against Obama next year. To millions of Americans who have lived on Social Security, Romney said Wednesday night, the program is not a failure.
He added, “The governor says, ‘Look, states ought to be able to opt out of Social Security.’ Our nominee has to be someone who isn’t committed to abolishing Social Security, but who is committed to saving Social Security.”
Perry will have the opportunity to elaborate on his views in a pair of upcoming debates in Florida, where the high percentage of retirees makes the topic all the more freighted for the Texas governor.
Perry said Wednesday night it may be time for “some provocative language” to shake the country to address its problems. After that performance, it will be difficult for him to hedge or soften or massage his past statements. For now he can only ride the bronco.